Judith Lieber

This design legend’s exquisite work travels the United States in a unique exhibit

TEXT Sara Linda
PHOTOGRAPHY Courtesy of Boca Raton Museum of Art,
Boca Raton, FL, and Judith Leiber, LLC, New York, NY

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Sparkling with thousands of Swarovski crystal beads, Judith Leiber’s handbags epitomize magnificent craftsmanship and style. Her diverse and whimsical designs have captivated generations of socialites and celebrities, from former first lady Mamie Eisenhower to rap artist Nelly. During Leiber’s career, which spanned almost four decades, she created bags that evolved from glamorous rhinestone accessories into exquisite objets d’art. Asian, Indian, Art Deco, Pop culture and antique influences further elevated her bags into an art form.
One of the few products still made by hand in the United States, each beaded bag takes up to two years to produce. One bag may incorporate up to 13,000 Swarovski crystal beads or rhinestones and requires up to five days to finish. An artist fabricates each pattern out of cardboard or wax, stamps it in brass, goldplates or silverplates it, and lines it with nappa leather. The artist then transfers by hand an original painting to the bag and, using a stick with beeswax at the end, individually applies each rhinestone or crystal to the outlined design.

To honor her pioneering work, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has organized a traveling exhibit called “Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber,” which is currently on display at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Boca Raton, Fla. Encompassing her repertoire from 1964 to 1998, the year of her retirement, this retrospective showcases more than 150 bags, including an example of the first beaded bag she created in 1967.

For the Hungarian-born Leiber, quality work has always been a top priority — and an innate talent. “My mother’s family were hat makers in Vienna, and I seem to have inherited some of my grandmother’s skills,” she says. “So, I learned all the skills of crafting handbags, and became a master handbag mechanic, designer and patternmaker.” In fact, Leiber became the first female master in the Hungarian handbag guild, and produced fine handbags until World War II made it impossible to work.

After the war, she met and married an American GI, Gershon Leiber, a painter and printmaker. The couple moved to the United States, where Leiber encountered challenges looking for work. “It was not easy to be the first and only female patternmaker in the trade,” she says. “I had to prove what I could do and also work hard to learn the different techniques and practices of the American industry.”
She spent more than 14 years as a patternmaker, designer and foreman for a number of handbag manufacturers. Finally, Leiber’s husband encouraged her to start her own business, and the duo became entrepreneurs, gradually building on Leiber’s skill and contacts.

“I wanted to make my bags as beautiful as possible in line and shape, without compromising on materials or workmanship,” Leiber says of her start-up philosophy.
But ironically, a compromise gave rise to her signature style. “My first metal bag was the ‘Chatelaine,’ a purse-shaped box,” she says. “When the first batch arrived, the plating was very poor. I covered all the bad areas with rhinestones, and the rhinestone bag was born. Later, I developed solid-color beaded bags and started to do patterns on classic shapes. Then new shapes beckoned, such as cats, dogs, Buddhas, elephants and so on.”

As her business grew in stature, Leiber became a dominant force in the fashion industry. In 1973, she received a Coty Award — the first ever given for handbag design. More accolades followed, including the Fashion Accessories Lifetime Achievement Award in 1983, the Council of Fashion Designers Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and the Accessories Hall of Fame Award in 2001.
Fans of Leiber’s handbags can view “Fashioning Art” at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through Dec. 31, 2005. From there, it moves on to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa.
For additional information on the Boca Raton exhibit, call 561/392-2500, or visit the website at www.bocamuseum.org. For more information on the Doylestown exhibit and Corcoran Gallery, visit www.corcoran.org.

above: In 1992, Leiber designed the “Dragonfly,” a Tiffany-inspired bag with a rounded silhouette. right: Designed in 1967, the classic “Chatelaine” was Leiber’s first rhinestone-beaded handbag. It’s still being produced today.
above: Perfect for a night out on the town, Judith Leiber’s glamorous line of evening bags includes the “Gershon,” “Hollywood” and “New York.” It often takes an artist up to five days to apply the crystal beads.
above: In 1992, Leiber designed the “Dragonfly,” a Tiffany-inspired bag with a rounded silhouette. right: Designed in 1967, the classic “Chatelaine” was Leiber’s first rhinestone-beaded handbag. It’s still being produced today.